Jamie Spinelli, housing peer support at Consumer Voices Are Born, said the messaging from the city since spring has been to not move people around or disturb encampments in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. There has been less enforcement and fewer citations given out for violations of the city’s unlawful camping ordinance.
As a result, many encampments have sprung up across Vancouver including Leverich Park and the area around Share House, the men’s homeless shelter downtown.
Spinelli said the messaging from the city changed even though the pandemic hasn’t.
“It’s confusing both to myself and those outside,” she said.
At the Sept. 28 city council meeting, the city talked about a plan to restore the area. Spinelli then emailed city councilors and staff outlining why moving everyone was a bad idea. She heard Monday that the city was going to make people move from the park on Tuesday and emailed staff again, but then heard plans had changed; people were not forced to move from Leverich, rather “strongly encouraged.”
Officer Tyler Chavers, who is on Vancouver’s Homeless Assistance Response Team, was at the park on Tuesday doing outreach and offering people help moving to a sanctioned parking location or connecting with Council for the Homeless for other services. The city offered gasoline, jump-starts and tows for vehicles, as well as trash disposal and storage.
Chavers estimated about one-third voluntarily took advantage of the resources offered while others asked for more time moving out of the park.
“We’re not forcing anyone. We’re not arresting anybody,” he said.
Eventually, though, crews will need to come in and sanitize the park after everyone has left. Chavers wasn’t sure when that would happen or what would happen afterwards, whether people would be able to return to the park in some capacity. Chavers assumes city staff, himself included, will visit the park a few more times before it can be sanitized.
Spinelli said she made some referrals for people in need of vehicle repairs, as many were inoperable. Some people were not interested in moving from the park. She said when the city comes out in force it can be overwhelming for people already in crisis.
“I think we should not be moving people, particularly in a pandemic, without a place for them to go,” Spinelli said. “They’re just going to go to another place. Then, that place will complain.”
Peter Fels, a retired attorney who’s pursued lawsuits on behalf of the homeless, has been monitoring the situation and speaking at Vancouver City Council meetings.
He said the city can’t tell people they can’t stay in parks if there is no available shelter space and they have nowhere else to go. Late Monday night, he heard police were going to be at Leverich Park on Tuesday to conduct what sounded like a sweep and was concerned as there had been no discussion at Monday’s city council meeting. He emailed city staff about his concerns.
City attorney Jonathan Young emailed Fels back: “The team working at Leverich Park this morning will not be ordering any of those experiencing unsheltered homelessness to relocate. With that said, the city will be working hard to pair all of those in the vicinity with available resources. This will include, when desired by the client, providing assistance relocating to an appropriate safe park location.”
He said steps were taken to mitigate public health risks in light of the pandemic. “City staff will also be conducting cleaning and litter removal while social service providers and police are in the area,” Young wrote. “We will be continuing to monitor the progress this has on improving sanitation and addressing health concerns in this area, and we will be conferring with Public Health on appropriate next steps.”
Fels sees Leverich Park as one symptom of a larger problem.
“The big problem is we’re getting close to winter,” Fels said. “We’re back to where we’ve been every other winter, which is insufficient space.”
He’d like to see the city utilize what it has such as community centers, school gyms or even the former Interstate 5 welcome center north of the Marshall Community Center.
One place that does have available space is the SafePark program, which offers overnight car camping at 10 church parking lots across Clark County.
David Bilby, who oversees the program run by his organization Go Connect, got a call a couple of weeks ago from the city asking for help with issues at Leverich Park.
Bilby then visited the park and estimated there were about 15 recreational vehicles, five tents and several other people staying in cars at the time. Accompanied by staff from Sea Mar, Bilby offered his services and four vehicles moved to church parking lots.
“Which is not that many in comparison to what’s there (at Leverich Park),” he said.
Bilby said if a vehicle doesn’t run, it’s hard for his organization to get involved due to the prevalence of vehicles being abandoned and then needing to be removed, which is costly.
Using grant money from the city SafePark expanded its capacity and hired safety officers who visit each site throughout the night. The program is at about one-fourth of its total capacity.
“We have lots of room,” Bilby said.
Separate from SafePark, the city runs the Safe Parking Zone at Evergreen Transit Center, 1504 N.E. 138th Ave., where people who live in their vehicles can park during Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.
On Tuesday, some people moved to the transit center or were towed there.
While there may be spaces for people with vehicles, there aren’t shelter spaces for those living in tents, Spinelli said. She noted that Living Hope Church recently closed its sanctioned tent encampment in central Vancouver.
“The reality is we have nowhere for these people to go,” Spinelli said.